Women’s Disempowerment

When we’re younger, we all believe that we are one of the fastest runners out of all of the kids in the class, often feeding into a fantasy. However, this was a reality for Mary Cain at the ripe age of 17, as she broke world records for track. She was the youngest American to ever make it to a world champion track and field team, which essentially gained the attention of Nike’s star track coach, Alberto Salazar. 

As a young and bright woman, who was looking to better her athletic skills, Mary Cain quickly took the opportunity to train with the renowned track coach, and be a part of Nike’s Oregon Project, which consisted of some of the fastest runners around the globe. Unfortunately, this experience was not what Cain expected, when instead of becoming the fastest runner, her skills depleted, making everything she worked and hoped for, slowly fall apart. Now a few years later, at the age of 23, Mary Cain has taken a brave step in the right direction, as she speaks on her experience with Nike and Alberto Salazar, and the mental and physical abuse she faced by the all-male training staff. 

The 23-year-old spoke on how the the coaching team, placed pressure on her weight, instead of focusing on her skills, and often publicly shamed her in front of her team for not reaching a goal weight. As a young woman, who is away from her family support system, this experience can be particularly detrimental on one’s self-esteem and overall mental health, something that Mary unfortunately fell victim to. Slowly over time, her running skills depleted, as her mind became fixated on her weight, causing her to loose focus during her runs. This led Mary to resort to self-harm, as she began to have suicidal thoughts, something which she claims that Salazar, and those around her, were aware of. In addition to the serious mental health detriment that Cain faced, the weight loss and pressure caused her to lose her period for a total of three years. This in turn caused her estrogen levels to decrease, which lead to deteriorating bone health, and caused Mary Cain to break five bones.  When she began to recognize the systemic “win-at-all cost” mentality that was implemented at Nike’s coaching centers, an environment that did not support the well being of its athletes, particularly the women, Mary Cain made the decision to go back home. 

This is not the first time that a female athlete has faced this kind of abuse with regards to Nike’s training program and coaching techniques, often a very male-centered approach. Similar to Mary Cain, Olympic runner, Kara Goucher, faced the same kind of treatment from Salazar. She expressed that as a young athlete, who has been offered the chance at an internationally recognized training program, you can’t help but think that it does not get any better than this for you, and that all you should be is grateful, in spite of the abusive experiences you may face. She even said that after the allocated meals that would be cooked for her to reach her goal weight, she would have to eat in her bedroom, scared that the coaches, particularly Salazar, would find out. 

It is no secret that weight is a factor in athletic training, not only in track and field, but in various other sports. However, the case of Mary Cain, and ultimately multiple other female athletes, is that they are not provided with the support from female experts, such as female dietitians or sports psychiatrists. Cain said that these kinds of services were often provided by friends of Salazar, or individuals he knew, rather than actual experts, let alone female experts who would know how to address her needs, both mentally and physically. 

Following Mary Cain’s statement, Nike claimed that they are set to investigate the allegations against Salazar, who has been suspended from the sport for four years, due to a doping incident. If Nike does investigate the abuse that Cain endured from Salazar and his staff, it is crucial to inspect the systemic patriarchy that dominates training programs such as this one. It is known that women are constantly undermined when it comes to the world of sports, and it is crucial to not only recognize the work that goes into training for these women, but the differing needs that they require as women, which is not to be confused for weakness. These women are mothers, daughters, sisters, global role models, and most importantly human. It is time we stop supporting yet another system that is oppressive to women, and that it is not simply enough to shut down one training program, and fire one coach. 

References

All Things Considered. (2019, November 17). Pro Runner Mary Cain Discusses Abuse Allegations Against Nike. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/11/17/780312550/pro-runner- mary-cain-discusses-abuse-allegations-against-nike.

Cain, M. (2019, November 7). I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/opinion/nike-running-mary-cain.html.

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